The nPower Championship kicked off Friday and it was Blackpool, last year’s Premier League darling, who triumphed with a 1-0 win at Hull in a match which was shown live on Plus and FoxSoccer.tv.
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Gary Taylor-Fletcher scored a late winner for Ian Holloway’s men, now without star players Charlie Adam and DJ Campbell.
England’s second division has been dynamic over the last two years both on and off the field. Getting into the Premier League is worth a staggering $150m to the lucky three clubs that make the jump, and in a sport increasingly balkanized by money, that reward is the difference between survival and oblivion for many lower division teams.
Six teams are early favorites to rejoin the big boys next season, with Nottingham Forest, Leicester City, Cardiff and the relegated trio of West Ham, Blackpool and Birmingham all clawing for the brass ring.
Arguably no team is under greater pressure than the Hammers. They have a new stadium on the way after the 2012 Olympic games, a new manager — and a huge hole in their balance sheets that can only be fixed with a swift return to the Premier League. Sam Allardyce, who was fired unexpectedly by Blackburn last season, has been handed the reins. Allardyce told the media last weekend that he expected to be sacked if he did not take West Ham back up immediately, and he has one of the biggest jobs on hand.
The Hammers lost a number of big players including Demba Ba, Thomas Hitzlsperger, Matthew Upson, Manuel da Costa, Kieron Dyer, Danny Gabbidon and American Jonathan Spector. The exodus isn’t over yet. Last year’s MVP Scott Parker is widely expected to leave within the coming week, with Chelsea or Arsenal rumored as his destination.
Allardyce has imported several players, however, with the biggest surprise being Newcastle’s Kevin Nolan. Matt Taylor has also joined the Hammers from Bolton.
But the Hammers are among the preseason favorites, largely because of “Big Sam’s” reputation for rebuilding. West Ham may not play pretty football at first, but they look to be an effective side — and anything has to be better than last year’s dour Avram Grant product.
Many eyes will be on Holloway and Blackpool, the team that won hearts — if not enough Premier League games — with their swashbuckling style of play. They too have been hit by an exodus, releasing key players like keeper Richard Kingson, Jason Euell and Marlon Harewood; and selling talisman Adam to Liverpool. They have, however, hung on to Taylor-Fletcher and seem to have enough to take a stab at an immediate return. One player for American college soccer fans to watch is Craig Sutherland, a Scot who joins the Seasiders from NC State.
Leicester City are also getting a pre-season nod because of the stewardship of manager Sven-Goran Eriksson. Buoyed by Thai money, the Foxes have been steadily rebuilding in an attempt to escape the second tier and may have finally pulled all the pieces together under the former England manager.
Eriksson has put together an almost entirely new team in the last six months, adding former Leeds keeper Kasper Schmeichel alongside big names like John Pantsil, David Nugent, Paul Konchesky and Manchester City loanee Michael Johnson.
Two perennial contenders for promotion, Nottingham Forest and Cardiff, have made serious attempts to overhaul their teams and finally break their playoff hoodoo.
Forest sacked manager Billy Davies after his side again failed to make the leap, losing in the first playoff round to Swansea last season. He’s been replaced by the former England manager Steve McClaren, a man with a checkered reputation who was last employed by Bundesliga side VfL Wolfsburg.
With England, McClaren was a disaster, and the British media never let him forget it. However, he revived his career with a stint in Holland, guiding FC Twente to their first and only Dutch title. McClaren has overseen a dramatic housecleaning at Forest with eight regulars departing. Andy Reid (Blackpool), Jonathan Greening (Fulham) and the aged George Boateng (Xanthi, Greece) have to fight on alongside MVP keeper Lee Camp and American striker Robbie Findley, but whether or not this bunch can play the expansive football McClaren has historically favored is a very open question.
Cardiff have survived a series of financial calamities in recent years but have not been able to solve their penchant for flopping in the playoffs. Last season they fell to Reading for their third straight playoff failure and responded by sacking manager Dave Jones. Jones’ replacement is a curious one – Malky Mackay, who had an undistinguished tenure at Watford. Cardiff were able to pick up Scottish striker Kenny Miller from Bursaspor but lost top scorer Jay Bothroyd on a free transfer to QPR, high scoring Michael Chopra to Ipswich, and loanee Craig Bellamy returned to Manchester City. Money woes still weigh heavily on the Welsh side with their new Malaysian investors only recent coming to terms with debtor PMG.
And then there’s Birmingham. They lost manager Alex McLeish to crosstown rivals Villa in the offseason and have seen their majority stakeholder, Carson Yeung, arrested on money laundering charges in Hong Kong. It’s just the latest blow to Birmingham, a side that has been bedeviled by financial drama since the late 1980s. Chris Hughton, who was unceremoniously canned by Mike Ashley at Newcastle last season, has been handed the reins, but its unsure if he’s even going to have much of a team to field. With Yeung’s assets frozen, the club is unable to meet obligations and acting chairman Peter Pannu is clearing out players in an attempt to save the team. Out the door so far are keeper Ben Foster, Roger Johnson, Sebastian Larsson, Kevin Phillips and Lee Bowyer, while plenty of clubs are interested in Cameron Jerome — and Pannu has promised more are to follow.